- Dates: Fri, May 1, 2020 to Sun, May 3, 2020
- Route: Willis Creek Slot Canyon > Sheep Creek > Upper Paria River > off-trail route over mesa > back to Sheep Creek shuttle car via Between the Creeks Road
- Weather: Sunny and clear. Highs in the 80s, lows in the 40s
- Distance Hiked: 20 miles
- Time: 3 days
- Campgrounds: Night before – Arch Campground in Kodachrome Basin State Park
In an unprecedented move, the United States locked down during late March 2020 due to COVID-19.
Utah, a state know for its outdoor recreation and natural beauty, shut its doors to tourism for the first time and closed its “Mighty Five” National Parks.
When the shutdown occurred, we were traveling up California’s Central Coast in our RV, our ultimate destination being Yosemite National Park.
Sadly, Yosemite closed before we ever made it there. The various RV resorts and state parks we called home also began to close. We decided to cut our journey short and head to Utah to shelter with family.
While we spent our days in isolation in Utah, we had weekly FaceTime chats with our group of hiking and camping buddies. It helped diminish the anxiety and chaos of the post-COVID world.
One of the subjects that arose in our calls was our longstanding tradition of meeting in Southern Utah in May to camp or backpack. We call it our “May Trip.”
May is the perfect time to visit Southern Utah. The late spring air is just warm enough to thaw the chilled spirit after a long winter. The cactuses are in bloom and the wildflowers are abundant.
And, if there has been rain, the creeks are flowing, meaning there are ample opportunities for backpacking in Southern Utah’s many red rock canyons.
We could tell from our weekly FaceTime calls that our Northern Utah friends desperately needed a break from the cold weather and isolation, especially Justin and Kate, who live in a cabin in the Uinta mountains heated by a wood-burning stove.
By late April, Utah State Parks were already beginning to reopen. Lucky for us, much of Southern Utah’s public lands never closed to begin with, including a large swath of Grand Staircase–Escalante.
In fact, Kim and I went on several day hikes during COVID-19:
So, despite the uncertainty surrounding the virus, I decided to carry on with our May Trip tradition.
For anyone that felt brave enough to join, I planned a 20-mile backpacking loop in the Paria-Hackberry Wilderness Study Area of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
Given the situation, I was tickled when 10 of our friends agreed to hike the Upper Paria River Loop I planned. I could tell we all really needed to get out of the house.
Before every trip, I like to consult an informed up-to-date resource about current conditions. In the desert, my biggest question is “where can we find water?” Local BLM offices and visitor centers are often a great place to gather information.
Tip: Call 435-826-5640 if you’re planning to hike the Upper Paria River
A week before we departed, I called the Cannonville Visitor Center to get details on the area. They told me that there was plenty of water in the region, and that permits are not required for this hike.
Note: Backpackers and day hikers must sign in at a register at the Willis Creek Trailhead
Bo Beck, manager at The Desert Rat in St. George, was also helpful in volunteering information about the hike when Kim visited the store for supplies.
His book, Favorite Hikes in and Around Zion National Park, has a brief but helpful section about Willis and Sheep Creek, as well as many other great hikes in the area.
In light of all the information I compiled, I decided that Willis Creek would be the best place to start. We left a shuttle vehicle at our exit point at Sheep Creek and parked the rest of the vehicles at the Willis Creek Trailhead.
Our route took us from the trailhead at Willis Creek to its confluence with Sheep Creek.
After a short foray into Sheep Creek Canyon to see some of its attractions, we followed Sheep Creek southeast until its confluence with the Paria River.
We then followed the Paria north for several miles, took an off-trail route over a mesa to reach Between the Creeks road, and walked along the road back to our our shuttle car at Sheep Creek.
Tip: Willis Creek makes for a great day hike with a lot of reward for very little effort
- Distance: 8.9 miles
- Ascent: 191 feet
- Descent: 802 feet
We rolled out of our camping spot at Kodachrome Basin around noon. We had slept in after a festive night of drinking craft beer from RoHa Brewing Project and Station II – Zion Brewery, and a dinner of dutch oven barbecue pork.
It took about twenty minutes of driving to reach Sheep Creek. I’d seen the turnoff for Skutumpah Road when we drove in the day before, so it was easy to spot.
The dirt road was pretty well-groomed, albeit with a few stretches of washboarding.
We left “Bert”, our trusty 2009 Ford F-150 at Sheep Creek. This would be our shuttle vehicle.
After that, we met up with the rest of our group at Willis Creek Slot Canyon Trailhead and started hiking at approximately 2:00 p.m.
Within five minutes of hiking, the canyon narrowed abruptly and became extremely picturesque.
15 minutes later, there was an 8-foot waterfall. Some of us got around it by going to the left and others to the right. We were then able to go down and look at it from underneath.
At different times, we saw two huge bull snakes on the creek banks.
It took us a little over an hour to reach the confluence of Willis and Sheep Creek.
We hiked up the Sheep Creek drainage a bit, found the “blue snake” pictograph, then sat down and ate lunch.
Afterward, we spotted a petroglyph at the bottom of a cliff wall next to the confluence.
We continued down the canyon in search of water. There were small muddy pools here and there, but nothing consistent.
Near the confluence with Bull Valley Gorge, we started to see cottonwoods. These trees tend to grow in riparian areas. Where there are cottonwoods, there are good water sources.
We took a 10-minute detour into Bull Valley Gorge and got wowed by the narrows and mud cracks.
At 7:15 p.m., we found a great campsite next to running water that was good enough to get us through the night.
Later on, we witnessed a dozen or more abnormally bright satellites cross the sky in a straight line. We had read that SpaceX’s Starlink satellites would do this a couple days later, so we assumed it happened early.
The purpose of these low-orbit satellites is to bring high speed internet to the entire globe!
- Distance: 5.3 miles
- Ascent: 471 feet
- Descent: 283 feet
We broke camp at 12:15 p.m. and reached Sheep Creek’s confluence with the Paria River in 15-20 minutes.
When we stopped for lunch, a few of the ladies became enchanted by the mud and started playing in it. There were spots of quicksand that were 1-2 feet deep that were great fun for playing in.
A few miles up the Paria River drainage, we found some cowboy inscriptions dating back to 1888.
Directly below this, there was an inviting pool that was about 4 feet deep. The sun was beating down on us, so we got in.
While we were soaking, a wild mustang came trotting down the canyon. He seemed surprised to see us in his favorite watering hole, but continued on his way.
I’d seen wild horses in the Great Basin and Navajo Nation, but I’d never seen one in a desert canyon. It was a real treat!
On a sandy bench next to our swimming hole, there was a great campsite so we settled in for the night.
- Distance: 5.7 miles
- Ascent: 814 feet
- Descent: 386 feet
We started hiking a little earlier (11:15 a.m.) because we knew it would be hot for the dogs on top of the mesa.
45 minutes in, we stopped marching to enjoy some superb honeycomb weathering along the eastern canyon wall.
At 1:00 p.m., we began ascending out of the Paria River drainage. We climbed about 400 feet, then slid under a barbed wire fence and dropped down into a wash. There was a water tank for cattle and a 4WD road.
We followed it and bore right onto the Between the Creeks Road, then followed that back to our truck.
A few members of the group volunteered to roll into Tropic and grab supplies. Meanwhile, the rest of us scouted a car camping spot near Grosvenor Arch.
Our final night was a hoot, filled with a whole lotta music and dancing.
- Hiking and Exploring the Paria River by Michael Kelsey
- Favorite Hikes in and Around Zion National Park by Bo Beck and Tanya Milligan
- Grand-Staircase Paunsaugunt Plateau by Nat Geo